The Debate

India-Pakistan Talks Cancellation: What Went Wrong?

Is India entering a new diplomatic era in terms of how it approaches Pakistan?

India-Pakistan Talks Cancellation: What Went Wrong?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As The Diplomat reported earlier on The Pulse, bilateral talks at the foreign secretary level between India and Pakistan have been shelved following a rendezvous between the Pakistani high commissioner in India and the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, a Kashmiri separatist group. The Indian government had delivered a message of “its either us or them” to the Pakistani side and the high commissioner’s actions have effectively erased any positive momentum in the fragile bilateral relationship that was put in place following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration, when he invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to India. If the talks had taken place, they would have been the first foreign secretary level talks in two years. Analysts expressed optimism about the trajectory of India-Pakistan relations given the positive rapport exhibited between Modi and Sharif in May.

However, as is evident, much has changed since May. The most important factor, perhaps, is that in Pakistan, consensus about the terms and objectives of foreign secretary level talks do not exist. As a consequence, Nawaz Sharif has a weak hand when it comes to dealing with India. Sharif was skewered domestically for his May trip to India for not addressing the Kashmir issue directly. He likely knew that this would be the response within Pakistan when he chose to travel to Modi’s inauguration. Moreover, during his trip to India in May, Sharif steered clear of meeting with the separatists — something that New Delhi had conveyed to his government in advance. That Sharif’s high commissioner would do so now, ahead of scheduled foreign secretary level talks, and ahead of another meeting between the two leaders at the U.N. General Assembly later this year, was likely unexpected by the Indian side.

Did India make the right call about canceling the talks? So far, many have made the argument that by canceling the talks, India is effectively weakening Nawaz Sharif’s hand and given ammunition to political elements in Pakistan who are less keen on talks with India. While Monday’s cancellation will have a chilling effect on bilateral diplomacy, it seems to me that India was right in communicating to Islamabad that it cannot simultaneously court both India and anti-India separatists. Secondly, it is not the Indian government’s place or responsibility to determine the viability of a Pakistani prime minister’s agenda. Sharif is currently under siege domestically for corruption, poor fiscal management, and a plethora of other reasons. Diplomatic talks with India would do little to address those challenges. Pakistan’s opposition, now consisting of the Pakistan People’s Party, Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf, and Tahrir ul Qadri will need more than an Indian overture to satiate their demands.

As an editorial in Live Mint notes, “One way to describe what happened is to claim that Pakistan has been sent a strong message that the era of ‘weakness’ by Indian governments is over.” More broadly, we can read this event as India effectively ending an age of appeasement when it comes to accommodating domestically besieged Pakistani leaders. The editors over at Live Mint describe this as possibly “the single biggest act of realism on part of a [Indian] government” in years. Modi’s comments in Kashmir last week, condemning Pakistan’s “proxy war” against India, suggest that his government is realist to the extent that it will not engage in dialogue with a Pakistan that is actively fomenting separatism and terrorism within India’s borders.

The fallout of India’s decision to cancel talks likely won’t be catastrophic either. Between Sharif’s May visit to New Delhi and the cancellation of talks, Pakistan has been regularly violated the ceasefire along the Line of Control — hearkening back to the situation in 2013. According to Hindustan Times, the Indian government claims up to 50 ceasefire violations by the Pakistani side, with “a surge in the last ten days.” The failure of talks with India will also take away political capital from Nawaz Sharif’s increasingly paralyzed government. When he came to power in 2013, Sharif vowed better ties with India. He pushed for a most-favored nation agreement despite widespread opposition. His failure today communicates to other Pakistani leaders that would prefer to see warmer ties with India that Pakistani civilian leaders must effectively abandon their relationships with separatists if they hope to make any progress with India.